Can Food be Addictive?

More than a third of adults and 17% of children and teenagers in the United States are obese. Obesity comes from overeating and from eating the wrong kind of food, as in foods that are high in fats and sugar.

Most people are aware of this and yet are continuing to follow the patterns of eating that lead to weigh gain and obesity.

Why? Why do we continue to do it?

We know its harmful, so why do we continue to overeat and overconsume. Could it be that there is a greater force that causes us to have less self control? Could it be that food is addictive?

To answer this, we have to take a step back to see why we choose to eat what we eat.

Food intake can be complicated, there are many different reasons why we choose to eat what we eat.


Taste preference



Food availability



Then there is the social and psychological factors such as




All these play a critical role in our food choice. In addition, many people find it hard to stop eating a particular food even though they are not hungry.


“Food is a potent natural reward and food intake is a complex process. Reward and gratification associated with food consumption leads to dopamine (DA) production, which in turn activates reward and pleasure centers in the brain. An individual will repeatedly eat a particular food to experience this positive feeling of gratification.”


The release of dopamine in the brain gives the feeling of “wanting” more so than “liking” or enjoying. This is the reason why people who have a addiction will continue the bad habit even if they logically know that it is harmful to them. There is this intense feeling of “I need to have it” that is hard to overcome. And the more we give into it, the stronger it gets.  Each time a person eats and experiences the release of dopamine it activates the brains reward pathways to the point where it overrides other signals of hunger and fullness. Many theories suggest that obese people overeat due to inability to perceive their physiological state, hunger, and satiety and that overeating reduce emotional discomfort and anxiety, leading to overeating which then can lead to obesity or even morbid obesity.


Overeating can also be similar to drug  use because it reflects an addiction where individuals become physically and psychologically dependent on foods rich in fat and sugar. Reports also show that eating palatable rewarding foods can reduce the level in stress, this gives credibility to “comfort eating” in stress relief. All together these findings suggest that there is a reciprocal link in mood disorder and obesity.


Interestingly, highly palatable foods activate the same brain regions of reward and pleasure that are active in drug addiction, suggesting a neuronal mechanism of food addiction leading to overeating and obesity. Dopamine, which directly activates reward and pleasure centers, affects both mood and food intake, further supporting the link between psychology and eating behaviors.


In the past, willpower has been speculated to control overeating.

Through neurobiological data, presence of food cravings, over eating, and tolerance support an addiction-like model by numerous signals that are involved in a bi-directional manner to regulate food intake. Genes, environment, various emotions also influence food intake, and mood states that trigger eating of palatable foods for comfort. This repetitive eating of comfort foods, rich in carbohydrate, high-fats and sugar, leads to obesity. Obesity in turn regulates mood due to metabolic disturbances. Metabolic disturbances further alter brain-signaling systems leading to a bi-directional vicious cycle of mood, food, and obesity.


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